The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena is exhibiting an illuminating sculpture from its permanent collection by Dan Flavin: “monument” on the survival of Mrs. Reppin, and the story behind it is almost as interesting as the artwork itself. Flavin made the sculpture in 1966 while he had a show in Berlin at Rudolph Zwirner Gallery. That’s when he met the eponymous Mrs. Reppin, a relative of Zwirner’s who told Flavin she was a British citizen married to a German soldier and later interned by the Allies for not divorcing her German husband. Flavin was so taken by her story, he dedicated the sculpture to her. (The artist dedicated one of his early incandescent-light pieces to his twin brother who had passed away from polio.)
Tom Norris with Dan Flavin’s “‘monument’ on the survival of Mrs. Reppin”
The museum’s curatorial associate Tom Norris organized the exhibition. He tells us that when the sculpture arrived in 1969, the Norton Simon was just being built. Architects had designed it in such a modern aesthetic that the interior walls were the same as the exterior — that is, with rounded edges — so there were no proper corners for it to be installed.
“There’s actually a lot of fun correspondence between the then-director and the Dwan Gallery in New York, who facilitated the artwork arriving here,” says Norris. “Saying, ‘We don’t have any corners. Can we exchange it for another piece?'” It wasn’t until 1998-99, when Frank Gehry renovated the interior of the Norton Simon that there became the proper 90-degree angle.
So, why is “monument” in quotation marks and all lowercase?
“Flavin was an interesting character. He had a fun sense of humor — dry, witty,” Norris says. “He grew up Catholic and had an interesting relationship with religion. And ‘monument’ is like… it is and it isn’t. There’s two sides to memorializing someone in an artwork.”
“monument” on the survival of Mrs. Reppin is on view at the Norton Simon Museum through August 19, 2013.